When you exercise regularly it's often tempting to keep up your routine even if you're feeling under the weather so you don't mess up your schedule. Depending on the exact nature of your illness, however, exercise isn't always a good idea. If you're experiencing chest congestion or similar symptoms then exercise should be avoided because it can be dangerous.
Chest congestion occurs when mucus and other fluids begin building up in the bronchial tubes and lungs, often as a result of an infection. A number of illnesses and conditions such as post-nasal drip, bronchitis and pneumonia have chest congestion as a symptom and it may be accompanied by fever or other symptoms as well. Chest congestion can be diagnosed by a doctor using a stethoscope, though a chest x-ray may be used to see how severe congestion is in some cases as well.
Failing the Neck Test
When trying to determine whether it's OK to exercise when you're sick you should use an evaluation tool known as the neck test: if all of your symptoms appear above the neck then exercise is OK, but if any symptoms appear below the neck then it should be avoided. Any condition with chest congestion as a symptom fails the neck test, so you should stop exercising when congestion appears. Even if your illness passed the neck test, it would still be advisable to reduce the intensity and duration of your workouts to avoid potential complications.
Dangers of Exercise
Because chest congestion restricts air flow, exercising while congested can cause you to have problems breathing and can negatively affect your blood oxygen levels as your body's need for oxygen rises. If the illness causing your chest congestion also causes you to have a fever then your chances of dehydration can increase significantly as well. A study published in the "Journal of Athletic Training" also found that the likelihood of illness complications increases during intense physical activity, potentially causing your illness to become more severe or last longer than it would otherwise.
Treating Chest Congestion
Before you start exercising again you need to get rid of your chest congestion, which in turn means treating the cause of the congestion. Over-the-counter medications containing an expectorant can break up congestion but do not treat the underlying cause. Since chest congestion can be a symptom of a number of different illnesses, consult your doctor or other health care provider to discover the cause of your congestion so you can treat it properly.
Resuming Your Routine
Once your chest congestion clears up you should be able to resume your exercise routine provided that you no longer have a fever or other symptoms that present below the neck. Don't start exercising again at full intensity, however; chest congestion and other symptoms associated with illness can take a lot out of you and trying to work yourself too hard can result in lightheadedness or other problems. Start exercising again at a significantly lower intensity, increasing it over several exercise sessions until you reach your previous intensity.
Born in West Virginia, Jack Gerard now lives in Kentucky. A writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience, he has written both articles and poetry for publication in magazines and online. A former nationally ranked sport fencer, Gerard also spent several years as a fencing coach and trainer.